The Wall Street Journal on Feynman,
Drexler, History, and the Future

by Eric Drexler on 2010/01/09

The Wall Street Journal published an article yesterday, “Feynman and the Futurists”, about Feynman’s ideas, mine, how the nanotechnology bandwagon got rolling, and how the band got thrown off the wagon — and then, out of the shadows, the NRC report and why the U.S. government should implement the NRC’s recommendations.

The author, Adam Keiper, is editor of The New Atlantis and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Toward the end of the article, he notes that the National Research Council has recommended initiating Federal research directed toward molecular manufacturing (the subject of my previous post) and laments that none of the federal nanotechnology R&D funding has gone toward “the basic exploratory experiments that the National Research Council called for in 2006”. In closing, he says:

If Drexler’s revolutionary vision of nanotechnology is feasible, we should pursue it for its potential for good, while mindful of the dangers it may pose to human beings and society. And if Drexler’s ideas are fundamentally flawed, we should find out—and establish just how much room there is at the bottom after all.

Mr. Keiper wrote this in commemoration of the recent 50th anniversary of Feynman’s talk, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom”.

He’s followed the ugly science-funding politics around advanced nanotechnology for many years now. What he says about this on target, and he says more than I’ve been willing to say here.

In fact, the whole article is uncommonly accurate. Writers usually add several ladles of bilge-water to the soup, but in this article, my main wish would have been for more meat and spices:

  • More about the scientific basis for the concept of molecular manufacturing (in scientific publications, doctoral work), to balance the talk about implausible prospective wonders,
  • Mention of the enormous progress on the research agenda that I’ve advocated from 1981 forward (new fields of science, tens of thousands of papers), to correct the mistaken impression that no Federal R&D funding has gone toward “the kind of nanotechnology that Drexler proposed”,
  • In connection with the science-funding politics that Mr. Keiper describes, it would be pertinent to mention the post-2000 redefinition of what “nanotechnology” is, and the reversal of position regarding what it can do; this is on the record in public statements* and official documents.

These sins of omission, though, are overshadowed by Mr. Keiper’s service to the public in highlighting the National Research Council report and its findings.

Full disclosure: I usually call Mr. Keiper “Adam”.

Here’s a particularly clear example of double-talk:

  • In 1999, Person A testified to a Senate committee about the wonders of “what will be possible when we learn to build things at the ultimate level of control, one atom at a time….putting atoms where you want them to go.”
  • In 2001, Person B told readers of Scientific American, that, contrary to Person A, Feynman, and me, this atom-level control was absurd: “To put every atom in its place — the vision articulated by some nanotechnologists — would require magic fingers….‘There’s plenty of room at the bottom’ But there’s not that much room.”

Remarkably, Person A = Person B. Official documents redefine the scope and objectives of “nanotechnology” during across the same time interval: Before funding, it’s all about atomically precise fabrication, once funded, it’s not.

See also:

[Misc. revisions, 11 January]

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Patrick January 10, 2010 at 9:59 pm UTC

Thanks for noting the WSJ piece…I missed it so this is quite helpful.

Paul Brown January 16, 2010 at 2:16 pm UTC

Wading through E. Drexler’s seminal book on molecular manufactuing, , R. Kurzweil’s Singularity, and Bill Joy’s dire warnings,
is not for the faint-hearted. The research and development of these technologies is advancing by the hour in labratories, research centers and universities around the world. The impact of these technologies on society and humankind will be as profound as global warming, but in a shorter time frame. My children and yours will be alive in that world.

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